Weighing up third-level fees
Madam, – The argument for reintroducing third-level fees is largely based on the premise that current policy has not widened access to higher education for traditionally under-represented groups. It is claimed that only the “middle classes” have gained from the abolition of fees. This is not, in fact, the case. There is clear evidence that several previously under-represented groups, namely the children of those who are classified as skilled manual, semi- and unskilled or own account workers, have sharply increased their representation.
Likewise, there has been significant growth in the number of adult learners over the age of 23 entering higher education. This has resulted in much progressive change in the composition of the student population in third-level. A recent HEA publication concludes that, in relation to access, there is evidence of narrowing of relative inequalities as those from less advantaged backgrounds have increased their levels of participation.
It is true to say that the most educationally disadvantaged have yet to show any significant gain in uptake at third-level. This is hardly surprising, however. For many such young people, completing primary and secondary education is an achievement in its own right and a significant increase in third-level participation for this sector was never realistic in the short term.
Before any dramatic change in policy takes place, it is important that the full facts are considered. Recent research from the Rowntree foundation in the UK suggests that the re-introduction of university fees in England have had a very negative effect on social mobility. I have no doubt the same would apply here if we were to go down this route. Progress has been slow, but there has been improvement. It would be easy to regress if the wrong policy options were taken. – Yours, etc,